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Fellow Spotlight: Elizabeth Melton
Connecting the arts to a lost industry
Cheap labor and plentiful water power made the Carolina Piedmont prime real estate for cotton mills. Dozens sprang up in the area soon after the American Civil War.
The textile industry dominated the economy until the 1960s, when many operations moved overseas because of unionization and cheaper wages. When the textile mills closed, their empty buildings became vacant eyesores. Their downfall also signaled an end to close knit mill town communities.
Left: 701 Center for Contemporary Art
Many cities and towns are now using the arts as a catalyst to revive their communities and attract tourists and residents. Cities and towns are creating downtown arts districts, including galleries, theaters and studios.
Old mill buildings are being transformed into condominiums and artists’ lofts. Restaurants and coffee shops are moving into vacant buildings. These towns are transforming into regional hubs for culture.
Living proof of this reformation is the 701 Center for Contemporary Art, a nonprofit organization housed in the former community center of the Olympia neighborhood, Columbia's historic textile village. The new space features a gallery for museum-quality art exhibitions and a live-work unit for artists-in-residence.
Melton created a site-specific installation called “Story Lines” as a part of the center’s inaugural exhibition, “Textile Tales."
Right: Elizabeth Melton's "Story Lines"
2008, Site-specific installation
The exhibition, which also included past Arts Commission fellowship award recipients, Ellen Kochansky and Phil Moody, focused on the legacy of the textile industry and those who lived and worked in it.
This was certainly not Melton’s first project tied to the textile industry. With help from the fellowship award grant she received in 2007, she purchased a portable loom to demonstrate weaving outside of the classroom. This activity has allowed her to meet people who have taught her a lot about mill life.
“No matter where I am weaving, I am invariably approached by former textile workers who share with me their stories and reflections of working in the mills and life in the mill villages,” said Melton, who says these encounters give her and former mill workers an opportunity to share—often with sadness and resignation—the history of textiles in South Carolina.
Right: Elizabeth Melton working on her installation at 701 CCA
“My response to a former way of life as well as the physical act of weaving provides a connection with the lost industry, which sustained and brought together so many families,” said Melton.
Wim Roefs, owner of if ART gallery in Columbia and one of many volunteer leaders of the 701 CCA, said Melton was truly the immediate and logical choice for the center’s first artist-in-residence.
“Beth has a long tradition of creating spectacular but sensitive, elegant installations using materials from the textile industry, including cloth or drapes and bobbins,” said Roefs. “Her work is not only conceptually and aesthetically very strong, but has sheer beauty and a ‘wow’ factor.”
In “Story Lines,” Melton’s goal was to engender the constricted feeling she imagined workers experienced while working in the confined spaces of the mills and living in their surrounding communities. To create her installation, she used fabric that came from a mill in Union.
Above: A spinner in the Mollahan Mills
Photo by Lewis W. Hine.
“I have been working with this fabric for 10 years,” said Melton. “I first used it in an installation in Rock Hill and it has since been used in projects from Charleston to Sumter; it’s like the pieces of fabric connect parts of the state.”
Melton’s art is enriching the memories of those who lived the textile industry experience and enhancing the cultural understanding of those who learn the history. She and other artists add context to a community’s efforts to recognize its past and revitalize its future.